An old postcard of “HMS” Rose.
Nancy Charboneau, née Rose, Grandma on my wife’s mom’s line, has been living with us for several months. Only some of her things have made it here from Houston, but in one box was a binder called “Rose Genealogy: 15 Generations in America, 16__ to 1978,” prepared by a relative, Ruth Torbert. While the family history is fascinating enough, included amongst the papers was a copy of an article that piqued my nautical interest because it was on “HMS” Rose, the replica British frigate that has gone on to Hollywood fame as the Surprise in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World among other films. The one-page article doesn’t mention any family. Furthermore, there have been, in fact, 21 ships named Rose in the English or British Navy, from a King’s ship in 1222 to a corvette that fought during World War II. “Rose” was used as the name for so many ships as it is the national flower of England; think War of the Roses or Tudor Rose. Did Torbert only include this article because of the circumstantially same name? Or is there, in fact, some connection between the family and the ship? I have only begun to research this question, and thus far the answer is…inconclusive.
Scene of a slave revolt, in this case as part of the Haitian Revolution of 1815.
The Rose family certainly has a salty enough history. The story begins, according to family tradition (and the genealogical papers), in 1634, when Thomas Rose and his family left London for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Unfortunately, a storm blew the ship off course, and the Roses’ landfall in the New World was on the island of St. Kitts in the British West Indies. There the Roses settled and farmed. All was going well until a slave uprising. No date for the uprising is mentioned in the genealogy, but I found an article online that describes in some detail a quickly suppressed slave revolt in 1639, which would fit the timeline. All the Roses were killed save the youngest son, another Thomas Rose. As the slaves were only threatening white males, young Thomas was dressed as a girl and swept off to New Amsterdam (New York) and then to Salem, Massachusetts, where he made a family. Moving to Connecticut, he established a long line of successful, landowning Roses…many of whom were still named Thomas. The third Thomas Rose, born about 1653, fought against the Native Americans in King Philip’s War and participated in the massacre of a Narragansett village that came to be known as “The Great Swamp Fight.” His son, Thomas Rose #4, born about 1681, served in several civil positions, including on the Connecticut General Court. Among #4’s children was John Rose, born 1709, who created a new stronghold of Roses in Rhode Island, from whom Grandma is descended. Often called “Judge John,” he held various offices at various times in South Kingstown and Washington County. He and several of his eight sons also fought in the Revolution as part of the “Kingston Reds,” the 3rd Kings County Regiment of the Rhode Island Militia.
The Revolution as it occurred in Rhode Island is the connection, however thin, between the Rose family and the original HMS Rose. But we need to shift a few miles.
Newport Harbor; artist unknown, probably late 19th century
Only a few miles east of South Kingstown is Newport, which, at the time of Judge John and the Roses, was a busy seaport. However, Newport being much less in stature than say Boston or New York, the seamen of the town turned “alternatives to conventional exports.” Newport was, indeed, a haven for smugglers, outright pirates and, eventually, revolutionaries. According to the unaccredited “HMS Rose” article included in the Rose genealogy, the city was known for “illegally importing cheap molasses from the French West Indies in large quantities, and then making it into rum. Rum, being virtually the only food preservative available in America, was a very valuable commodity.” Food preservative? Well, I suppose that’s one use for rum! Of the pirates of Newport, the most famous was Thomas Tew, who, although making only two voyages in 1692 and 1694–the second ending with his death in battle–is commonly credited with pioneering the “Pirate Round” from the Northern Atlantic, around the tip of Africa, to Madagascar and the hunting grounds of the Arabian Sea, and home again with holds full of Muslim loot.
“The Burning of the Gaspée,” by Charles DeWolf Brownell
All of this illegal activity did not go unnoticed by the British, but the Rhode Islanders defended their right to free trade to the point of rebellion. In 1768, the British confiscated the ship Liberty
, owned by one John Hancock
, for purportedly locking the customs official in the cabin as they unloaded their cargo of Madeira wine
. Refitted as HMS Liberty
, the ship patrolled off Rhode Island for customs violators. Yet, in July 1769, when HMS Liberty
seized two ships and brought them into Newport, the Rhode Islanders retaliated by boarding, scuttling, and burning the Liberty
; this event is often cited as one of the first acts of open defiance against the Crown. Three years later, HMS Gaspée
sailed into Narragansett Bay
to try once again to suppress Rhode Island smugglers. Pursuing the packet boat Hannah
, the Gaspée
ran aground, and members of the Sons of Liberty
quickly boarded the ship and burned the vessel to the waterline.
“HMS Rose, 1757,” by Michael Sutton.
Having had enough of the Rhode Island troublemakers, the British needed a more powerful warship. That ship was the HMS Rose
, and her arrival in American colonial waters sparked off a series events that changed Rhode Island and, indeed, United States history. Built in England in 1757, the Rose
, a sixth-rate post ship mounting 20 guns, had served in both the Channel and the Caribbean during the Seven Years’ War.
In 1774, under the command of Captain James Wallace
, HMS Rose
entered Narragansett Bay. So successful were Wallace’s efforts at eliminating Rhode Island smuggling that, within eight months, a supposed four fifths of the residents of Newport were ready to leave due to unemployment. Desperate, Rhode Island merchants petitioned the colonial legislature to create its own navy. In June 1775, the sloops Katy
were chartered by the Rhode Island General Assembly to defend the colony’s shipping. Rhode Island’s little navy led directly to the creation of the Continental Navy
in October 1775. Rhode Island, anxious to business on its own terms, declared independence on May 4, 1776, two months before the national Declaration of Independence
. The sloop Katy
entered Continental service as USS Providence
and was one of the first commands of none other than John Paul Jones. HMS Rose
, meanwhile, played a critical role in the British invasion of New York in July 1776, for which Wallace was knighted. Throughout the war, Rose
patrolled the northeast coast, pressing unfortunate sailors and seeking out provisions for British garrisons. Finally, in 1779, HMS Rose
was intentionally scuttled in the channel leading to British-occupied Savannah, Georgia
, to prevent the French fleet from assisting an American assault. There in the narrows, after the war, the Rose
A contemporary print depicting the Battle of Rhode Island.
I have found no mention of the Rose family in the above actions, but the Rose family certainly participated in the Revolution, and, more specifically, in Newport’s role in the war. The Rose genealogical papers have a whole section entitled “Military Roses.” Judge John and five of his sons are particularly mentioned. Sadly, two of the sons were taken as prisoners of war; Philip Rose endured the hardships of the notorious prison ship “Old Jersey
” in New York Harbor, where he died of starvation. Judge John and his son John Rose, Junior, are said to have been members of the “Kingston Reds called to Newport” for “the only battle on Rhode Island soil in the Revolution.” This event is called, among other names, “The Battle of Rhode Island
” or “The Siege of Newport.” The impetus for said battle was the entry of French support of the Revolution in 1778. Twelve ships of the line under Admiral Comte d’Estaing
were supposed to blockade the British fleet in the Delaware River, but, by the time Comte d’Estaing completed a three-month crossing of the Atlantic, not only had the British fleet left the Delaware, but also the French fleet’s next best bet, New York, was deemed to be too daunting to approach. Newport was chosen as the next destination. The British had occupied Newport since late 1776, seeing the port as a potential rebel base to attack their stronghold in New York. The Americans were in a standoff with the British until the French movement gave Newport new strategic importance. Major General John Sullivan
was appointed by Congress to Rhode Island, and he rallied the local militias to his effort–including the Kingston Reds and thus John Rose and his son. The ensuing battle proved to be a draw. Although d’Estaing initially held Newport harbor, when the British fleet from New York, under Admiral Lord Richard Howe
, arrived, the two naval forces went out to do battle but were scattered by two days of storm. Lacking French support, Sullivan’s troops were unable to openly attack Newport, and a siege began. When d’Estaing abandoned Newport, the disheartened militias began to break up. It was then, as the Americans were withdrawing, that the British chose to attack. The battle lasted about a day. In the end, Continental forces fell back, and, although Newport remained in British hands, in 1779 they abandoned Newport to concentrate their forces in New York.
HMS Rose saw no part in this battle. Even Sir James Wallace was far away, in command of the 50-gun HMS Experiment. He and his ship were captured by the French off Hilton Head in 1779. Wallace was released within months. In 1794, he was promoted to Rear-Admiral and served for a time as governor of Newfoundland. He retired to England in 1797, became Admiral of the Blue in 1801, and passed away in 1803, about 72 years old. In sum, the only connection between the Rose and the Roses during the eighteenth century was Rhode Island: At one point the Rose played a vital role in creating a Revolutionary navy out of Newport, while at a totally different point the Roses participated in an ultimately pointless attempt to take Newport back from the British.
Tall Ship Rose
So, two hundred years later, we must seek a possible connection between the Rose family and the replica Rose. Here, again, only geography seems to bind them. The idea for the new Rose came from John Fitzhugh Millar, a well-published historian from Rhode Island, whose areas of expertise include Revolutionary era ships and architecture; he is now running a bed and breakfast in Williamsburg, Virginia. In the late 1960s, as the bicentennial of American independence approached, Millar proposed that three vessels of specific importance to Rhode Island be built: the Rose, the sloop Providence, and the Turtle, the first submersible documented to have been used in war. Rose, the largest, was the first to be built. Designs were made by Philip C. Bolger of Gloucester, Massachusetts, credited with at least 668 designs over his long, prolific career. Rose’s keel was laid in June, 1969, at the Smith and Rhuland shipyard in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, Canada; Rose was the last of nearly 300 vessels built at that yard since 1900, which included the lamented Bounty. “HMS” Rose–“HMS” is always in quotes as the replica was never an actual commissioned naval vessel–was launched in less than a year.
Like many a modern tall ship, Rose has been through hard times, but luckily she has survived and prospered. In the 1970s, she could not take United States charters as her hull was foreign-built. For most of two decades she languished as a dockside attraction in Newport, making just enough money as a museum ship to stay afloat. Her fate improved in 1988 when she was bought by what would become the non-profit Rose Foundation, operated under the command of professional master sailor Captain Richard Bailey. Rose was meticulously upgraded until, in 1991, she was certified by the USCG as a sail-training ship. Hundreds of people learned the ropes aboard her. Then, in 2001, she was bought by 20th Century Fox. Still under the guidance of Captain Bailey, the Rose was carefully changed into the Surprise and a detailed and accurate replica of her namesake. Thirteen ships of the British Royal Navy bore the name. The direct inspiration for Lucky Jack’s favorite ship, as critical a character to O’Brian’s series as Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin, was built in 1794 by the French as the corvette L’Unité and captured by the British in 1796, renamed, and classed as a frigate. The conversion of Rose into Surprise was permanent and to full sailing standards. After filming, Surprise was purchased by the Maritime Museum of San Diego in 2005. The Coast Guard determined she needed certification before resuming sail operations, so in 2007 she was drydocked in Chula Vista, California, and thoroughly refitted. Surprise is now one of the prizes of the museum. Surprise and the replica Providence, not to mention Lady Washington and Bounty, have all appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Surprise at home at the Maritime Museum of San Diego
There are still no Roses. There are some good tales for both the ships and the family, but they pass close to each other without ever quite intersecting. There are possible bridges that I simply have not yet had the documents or the connections to investigate. One is the broader regional importance of the Roses prior to and during the Revolution. If the Roses were a powerful family, regardless of direct lineage to my immediate kin, then there may have been some Rose who had a role in the events that led to or followed the arrival of HMS Rose. A second possibility is a Rose participating in the revival of the Rose. I have too little information on the historian Millar and what his connections are in Rhode Island. I also have too little on the rebirth of the Rose: The Rose Foundation and its supporters. The history of Rhode Island–centuries of it–is the only broad concern connecting these stories. Rather than see the Rose and the Roses as circumstantially connected by place, one could see the complexity of that historical geography as a deep site to excavate. Like any good detective, I’ll take any leads my fair readers may supply, and I accept the maxim that there is no such thing in a mystery as a coincidence…